News, Reviews — October 5, 2016 at 5:03 am

Hidden Underpinnings: What Vintage Lingerie Tells Us About History

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1940s satin suspender, from The Underpinnings Museum collection. Photography by Tigz Rice Studios

I’ve been in the lingerie for around five years now; it’s not long in the grand scheme of things, but it means that I have seen A LOT of lingerie. As time’s gone by, I’ve found myself getting less and less excited by contemporary design. Capitalism demands that garments ultimately sell, so designers naturally face certain limitations in the materials, patterns and embellishments that they can use. It’s just the way it is. Lingerie is still one of my great loves, but my focus has shifted away from the modern world and into the garments worn in bygone eras: from the whaleboned corsets of the late 19th century to the bullet bras of the 1950s.

Back detail from a 1910s silk tulle and lace step-in teddy, from The Underpinnings Museum collection. Photography by Tigz Rice Studios

As my passion for modern design has waned, I’ve found myself pouring my energies into a new venture: the founding of a website called ‘The Underpinnings Museum’. It documents my personal vintage lingerie collection and ultimately explores their history. But the history of lingerie is more than just pretty undergarments to lust after. As a designer, vintage and historical lingerie are one of the most valuable and important fashion resources that we have today. The world we live in now demands fast fashion: a constant stream of new designs, overwhelming choice and, ultimately, throwaway product. I’ve found that the study and appreciation of lingerie history is the perfect antidote to this.

U-wire low-back bra, estimated to be from the 1950s. From The Underpinnings Museum collection. Photography by Tigz Rice Studios
The Kestos-style bra saw its heyday in the 1930s. It was one of the first bras to feature separate cups. Although this example isn't from the actual Kestos brand, it is a beautiful couture rendition that is entirely hand sewn with beautiful embroidery work. From The Underpinnings Museum collection. Photo by Tigz Rice Studios

My collection of vintage lingerie ultimately tells stories of innovation, craftsmanship and social change. The smallest details of the garments that we wear today were once matters of great significance and excitement: elastic was once scarce, with most bras pre-1950 being made to fit exactly with no give around the body. Shoulder straps remained fixed length until almost half a century after the invention of the bra. The underwires that we take for granted today emerged from a pack of overwires, circle wires, U-wires and monowires; likewise, hook and eye fastenings had their own evolution.

These 1930s satin and lace tap pants are entirely sewn by hand, including the heart-shaped applique embroidery. From The Underpinnings Museum collection. Photo by Tigz Rice Studios
1930s satin and lace tap pants. This garment has been entirely sewn by hand, with impeccable finishing: tiny French seams, a rolled hem and exquisite embroidery. This single garment would have had hours of work poured into it. From The Underpinnings Museum Collection. Photo by Tigz Rice Studios

The 1930s saw some of the finest lingerie craftsmanship that has ever been: swooping bias cuts, tiny French seams, lashings of lace applique and the most impeccable hand finishing. These garments were the pinnacle in decadence and they were made to be treasured. The true testament to this is that there is ultimately very little modern lingerie that compares: even at the highest-end of the market, it is now extremely unusual to see a silk garment with 3mm French seams and embroidery that has been entirely sewn by hand. Once, it was commonplace.

This Edwardian corset is exquisitely beautiful and wonderfully complex. The pattern for this garment is extremely challenging and this piece would have been quite restrictive to wear, compared to corsets from the previous century. From The Underpinnings Museum collection. Photo by Tigz Rice Studios
Silk rosette details on ruffled elastic suspenders, from an Edwardian corset in The Underpinnings Museum collection. Photo by Tigz Rice Studios

Studying the pattern shapes of the undergarment evolution between the 1910s and 1920s reveals fascinating knowledge about our society. Edwardian fashion relied on complex corsetry: by the end of this time period, the cuts of these garments had become incredibly complicated. Panels were cut diagonally, to force the body into the sinuous S-curve that was so desired: a silhouette that was incredibly restrictive. The undergarments of the 1920s were ultimately a rebellion to this: corsets were eschewed, and it was in this era that we saw the first renditions of the bralet. Tap pant, teddies and chemises became the new standard. The patterns of these garments were as simplified as they could possibly be, relying on rectangles with darts for shaping. It represented a new freedom for women, in their movement and in their dress.

This Edwardian corset is made from a single layer of lightweight silk and is incredibly fragile. Every time it is handled, no matter how carefully, it sustains further damage. Ultimately it is too delicate to display on a mannequin, but it still offers deeply valuable study opportunities. From The Underpinnings Museum collection. Photo by Tigz Rice Studios
Embroidery and lace boudoir cap with rosettes and silk ribbon streamers. Estimated to be from the 1920s. From The Underpinnings Museum Collection. Photo by Tigz Rice Studios

I feel a sense of obligation to make a record of these valuable garments. For all intents and purposes, lingerie is a finite resource. Fabrics such as silk and elastic start to shatter and degrade over time: much of my collection that is dated before the 1920s is irreparably damaged in this way. Every time these garments are handled and taken out of storage that damage only worsens. By at least cataloguing these pieces permanently in photos, there will be some record of them that can outlive the physical object.

1930s nylon and lace applique tap pants by couture lingerie designer Juel Park. Alongside the extensive and intricate lace applique, this piece features French seams and a hand sewn waistband. This level of finishing is almost completely devoid from modern lingerie. From The Underpinnings Museum Collection. Photo by Tigz Rice Studios

Lingerie has a long and convoluted history, with more value than most people recognise. The Underpinnings Museum will be a free access museum which documents garments through detailed imagery and their written stories. We plan to launch the museum this November and are currently crowdfunding through Kickstarter to help to raise funds for the website set up. If this is a project that you would like to see come to life, any support is invaluable: be it through backing the campaign or simply sharing the museum with your friends.

Readers: Do you think there is a need for a museum dedicated to lingerie? What is your favourite era in the history of lingerie?

Original Content Provided by The Lingerie Addict

12 Comments

  1. Vambery says:

    October 5, 2016 at 6:46 am

    This is a really great project, I am fascinated by ancient clothin, and underwear. Just like you (but on my part, only after years of snobing the 1920-30’s era) I am now fascinated by the exquisite pieces of that time.
    I was wondering if this virtual museum would, ultimately, solely features pieces from your personnal collection or if you would be interested in collaboring with other collectors. I am not one, but I happen to have found in my attic an adjustable pregnancy corset from the 1890’s, in fairly good condition. I have an idea of the family and women it belonged to, and although I have absolutely no wish to sel or give it away, I think it is a shame no one should ever see it but myself (and even I don’t, since I’ve stacked it away in a PH-neutral box). But maybe you already have one in the upcoming collection, since, as I understood, they are fairly common, having been worn less and better preserved…. or you don’t want to receive anymore of this kind of unsollicited offers, which I would totally understand 😉

    Reply

  2. Karolina says:

    October 5, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    Thank you for your comment, I’m so glad that you like the project! The longterm goal for the museum would definitely include featuring other collectors, contemporary designers and much more. It’s the initial goal to document my collection as it’s the easiest resource; we don’t have time limits and it’s much easier to research. Your corset sounds like an absolute dream – I would love to see it one day! So yes, we’d absolutely love to feature it in the museum, further down the line once things are a bit more organised and we’ve managed to get through the current backlog of objects 🙂 Thank you for the kind offer!

    Reply

  3. Vambery says:

    October 5, 2016 at 3:33 pm

    Oh thank you for your kind answer, I was a bit afraid you’d find me presomptuous 😉 I’ll follow the project and if you ever make a call for extra features I’ll be sure to get in touch !

    Reply

  4. Saffron says:

    October 5, 2016 at 8:50 am

    What an amazing project, and such a great resource for students of dress history!

    Reply

  5. Karolina says:

    October 5, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    Thank you, I do hope that students will be able to get a lot out of it!

    Reply

  6. Sam at Broad Lingerie

    Sam at Broad Lingerie says:

    October 5, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    This is such an amazing venture! I’ve just backed the project and wish you so much success!
    I’m curious if the museum will be accepting outside donations and if the museum seeks to (eventually) get input/assistance from a textile conservator. I understand that as a designer/collector/seamstress Karolina has a better sense of garment care than the average person, but it would be ideal to preserve this collection as long as possible!

    Reply

  7. Sam at Broad Lingerie says:

    October 5, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    This is such an amazing venture! I’ve just backed the project and wish you so much success!
    I’m curious if the museum will be accepting outside donations and if the museum seeks to (eventually) get input/assistance from a textile conservator. I understand that as a designer/collector/seamstress Karolina has a better sense of garment care than the average person, but it would be ideal to preserve this collection as long as possible!

    Reply

  8. Sam at Broad Lingerie

    Karolina says:

    October 5, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    Thank you so much for your support, truly!
    In the long run we’d absolutely love to accept outside donations (we’ve already been approached by a few people who want to pass on their collections to us), and it would be wonderful to get input from a professional textile conservator. We’re starting small as there’s only a very small team (and realistically, most of what we’re doing is volunteer work so there’s a limited amount of time and resources available – part of the reason why we’re raising these funds through kickstarter).

    Reply

  9. Francine Rossi

    Karolina says:

    October 5, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    Thank you so much for your support, truly!
    In the long run we’d absolutely love to accept outside donations (we’ve already been approached by a few people who want to pass on their collections to us), and it would be wonderful to get input from a professional textile conservator. We’re starting small as there’s only a very small team (and realistically, most of what we’re doing is volunteer work so there’s a limited amount of time and resources available – part of the reason why we’re raising these funds through kickstarter).

    Reply

  10. Sam at Broad Lingerie says:

    October 5, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    You’re welcome!
    I totally understand the need to start small, especially when most of your labour is unpaid! I bring only bring up a textile conservator because of my conservation background (plastics rather than textiles in my case!). But It’s clear that you’re already treating these garments with the care and respect that they deserve!
    There are so many specialty fashion museums out there (Shoe museums! Purse Museums!) and I’ve always been saddened that there isn’t anything out there for lingerie. This museum is so important and fills an inexplicable gap in fashion (and social and technological) history. Thank you again for this project!

    Reply

  11. Holly Harlott

    Sam at Broad Lingerie says:

    October 5, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    You’re welcome!
    I totally understand the need to start small, especially when most of your labour is unpaid! I bring only bring up a textile conservator because of my conservation background (plastics rather than textiles in my case!). But It’s clear that you’re already treating these garments with the care and respect that they deserve!
    There are so many specialty fashion museums out there (Shoe museums! Purse Museums!) and I’ve always been saddened that there isn’t anything out there for lingerie. This museum is so important and fills an inexplicable gap in fashion (and social and technological) history. Thank you again for this project!

    Reply

  12. Sam at Broad Lingerie says:

    October 5, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    You’re welcome!
    I totally understand the need to start small, especially when most of your labour is unpaid! I bring only bring up a textile conservator because of my conservation background (plastics rather than textiles in my case!). But It’s clear that you’re already treating these garments with the care and respect that they deserve!
    There are so many specialty fashion museums out there (Shoe museums! Purse Museums!) and I’ve always been saddened that there isn’t anything out there for lingerie. This museum is so important and fills an inexplicable gap in fashion (and social and technological) history. Thank you again for this project!

    Reply

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